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The CEM Staff: Three Notable Figures Print E-mail

   Most accounts of the CEM have spotlighted Yung Wing as “the father of China’s foreign-educated students”, noting particularly his conflicts with the antagonistic Commissioners, Chen Lanbin (陈兰彬) and Wu Zideng (吴子登), and his failure to save the “boy students” from being recalled by the Qing Government.  Furthermore, because of China’s need to establish diplomatic representation in America, soon after the inception of the CEM, Chen and Yung were given that extra task.  In 1875 Chen and Yung were appointed China’s first Minister and Associate Minister, respectively, to the United States, conjointly to Spain and to her then colonial possessions, Cuba and Peru.  Unfortunately, the prominence of the Commissioners has tended to obscure the lesser staff on the Mission and it is the aim of this essay to bring them into view and to highlight their contributions.
   Among the second rank of the CEM staff, three men were especially remarkable in their own ways.  Each was fluent in English, having received a Western education, and every one of them played a significant part in East-West interactions beyond their official duties with the Mission.

Teacher, Interpreter, Cultural Bridge-builder

   Tseng Laisun (Zeng Laishun 曾来顺; "Laisun" often rendered as 兰生; official name: Hengzhong 恒忠), the Mission’s official interpreter from 1872 to December 1874, was born in Singapore to a Chinese father of ChaoZhou 潮州 background and a Malay mother.1   After their deaths, the young Tseng came under the care of American missionaries who gave him a Western education and converted him to Christianity.  In 1843 he was brought to America for further schooling, including attendance at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, from 1846 to 1848.  Though unable to finish his studies for lack of funds, Tseng was well-furnished with Western learning and highly articulate in English.  Repatriating to China, he much improved his competence in Chinese and initially undertook missionary work and teaching in mission schools, but later went into business, and became very affluent.  Changing direction in the next decade, Tseng entered government service: valued for his Western education, in 1866 the reform-minded Viceroy Zuo Zongtang 左宗棠 hired Tseng to teach English and to provide translation services at the Fuzhou Navy Yard School, where Tseng taught until 1871.  Years earlier, in Shanghai he had come into contact with Yung Wing and his skills in teaching English later secured for him a place in the CEM.  In fact, he and Yung together had deliberated on the plan to send boys to study in America as a strategy for strengthening China.  He and two of his sons — Elijah Laisun (Tseng Poo)(Zeng Pu 曾溥 II, 46) and Spencer Laisun (Tseng Tuh Kun)(Zeng Dugong 曽笃恭 I, 30) — were the first tutors of English at the CEM preparatory school in Shanghai.  (Though several years older than the “boy students”, they were nonetheless also part of the CEM student body.)

   Tseng’s whole family — his wife Ruth Ati (of a similar Indo-Chinese ancestry), three sons and two daughters — accompanied him to New England and quickly entered the social life of their community.  Instead of settling in Hartford, he took up residence in Springfield where he purchased a house and also played host to CEM student, New Shan Chow (Niu Shangzhou 牛尚周 I, 12).  Partly due to his physical distance from Yung and Chen, Tseng filled a larger role than that of interpreter, being frequently addressed, incorrectly, as “Commissioner” by outsiders, and becoming the public image of the CEM wherever he travelled.  Thus, perhaps owing to his fluency in English and his experience of the wider world, Tseng occasionally assisted in diplomatic affairs.  In late 1873 or early 1874, he and another CEM staff member were quietly sent by the Qing Government to investigate the miserable conditions of the Chinese workers in Cuba.  His report laid the ground for Chen Lanbin’s subsequent investigation and eventual success in pressuring Spain to stop the traffic of Chinese coolies to Cuba.

   Taking advantage of a rather light workload at the CEM, Tseng participated energetically in American society.  He resumed contact with his retired missionary teachers and with his former professor at Hamilton College, whose governors thought so well of this former student that in June 1873 they conferred on him an honorary Master of Arts.  The activity he most often pursued was giving talks to Americans, often for a fee, in a wide variety of venues across many communities in the northeast.  His lectures on Chinese culture and on Christian themes were always well-attended.  Thanks to his Western education and Christian identity, Tseng succeeded in virtually breaching the wall separating whites from “orientals” in those days.  Warmly embraced by the Springfield elites with whom he socialized, he was even invited to join the local Freemasons’ lodge, which at that time was all white.  Nonetheless, Tseng retained his native traits in attire and in his persistent efforts to interpret Chinese culture to Americans.  Through such activities, undertaken on his own initiative, Tseng in effect assumed the role of a cultural ambassador for his country, promoting good-will and understanding between Chinese and Americans.

   In December 1874, Tseng’s tenure at the CEM ended abruptly when the Chinese Government recalled him for an urgent assignment.  He returned by way of England.  According to The Springfield Republican, he was making plans to place some of the advanced students at the Fuzhou Naval School for further studies in the national schools of England.1 The London and China Telegraph of 25 January, 1875 (p. 81) reported that he was scouting out schools that might be suitable for sending Chinese students over in the future.  For the rest of his career, Tseng remained in China serving as the chief private English Secretary for Viceroy Li Hongzhang 李鸿章 and assisting in the latter’s numerous negotiations with various foreign powers.